Public discussions on future of Irish neutrality to be held later this year

Process will focus on security and defence, informing Government policy

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: 'Ireland is militarily neutral which means we’re not members of Nato, we’re not members of any military alliance, but we’re not politically neutral.' Photograph: EPA

The Government is to host a series of public discussions on the issues of neutrality and defence later this year.

The forums will not be a Citizens’ Assembly but will borrow aspects of that process. One source compared the plans to the Shared Island initiative that brought together hundreds of community representatives and politicians to discuss North-South co-operation.

“It will take bits from the Shared Island forum and bits from the Citizens’ Assembly format,” the source said.

On Friday in Brussels Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin was developing proposals for a discussion on neutrality but declined to go into detail.

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Sources with knowledge of the proposals stressed it will not focus solely on neutrality but will also discuss security and defence within a domestic and international context. It is not intended as a prelude to big changes to neutrality policy, such as potentially becoming a Nato member, they said.

The outcomes of the discussion “will provide food for thought” and inform Government policy, said one source.

These forums will have an independent chair and will likely take place at several locations around the country. The Government intends to have them up and running before the end of the year.

The terms of reference have yet to be finalised but participants are expected to include academics, military figures and experts in international and EU security, from Ireland and abroad. The forums will be fully open to public participation and may be broadcast.

“It’s about getting the right people in the room for a transparent discussion and debate,” said one official. “It will be a useful exercise as we haven’t had an assessment of Ireland’s security policy in some time.”

Mr Martin said last year that there should be discussion on Ireland’s neutrality following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Asked in Brussels, where EU leaders decided last night to send one million artillery shells to Ukraine, if that discussion would take place, Mr Varadkar said: “The Tánaiste is developing proposals on that and at the right time and at a time of his choosing I think he’ll tell you more about it.”

Mr Varadkar said: “He has developed proposals as to how we could consult stakeholders and the public in a meaningful way on how our defence and security policy should evolve.”

Mr Varadkar denied that Ireland was becoming isolated within the EU as a result of its neutral stance.

He said that Ireland was one of four countries in the EU that are “not members of Nato and don’t intend to join Nato” and he said there is “a very good and fair understanding of our position and our particular sensitivities and the culture and politics around that”.

“I’ve never for a second felt under any pressure from other prime ministers or presidents to change our position on it but I do need to be very clear: Ireland is militarily neutral which means we’re not members of Nato, we’re not members of any military alliance, but we’re not politically neutral. We’ve always been on the side of the West, on the side of democracy and on the side of freedom. And that’s particularly the case now that we’re facing this war in Ukraine,” Mr Varadkar said.

“We participate in Pesco, which is European security and defence, we participate in the European Defence Agency, we’re a member of EU battle groups, so our neutrality needs to be seen for what it is in that sense.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times